Every week the City of Chicago loses more places that define what Chicago is and how we came to be the city that we are — whether by a bulldozer or special land giveaways on historic parkland. When will the City of Chicago put a premium on protecting our historic built environment?
“Chicago needs a bigger toolbox,” said Ward Miller, Executive Director of Preservation Chicago, “and it needs a City Council committed to legislation that will place the burden of proof on developers to make the case for why they should be permitted to erase our historic built environment.”
There are limited tools to save historic and significant buildings and not enough staff in the City to administer them.
After all, historic buildings are part of our cultural heritage which the world comes to Chicago to visit. It’s a large part of tourism for Chicago and a big income generator for our city.
There is a 90-day demolition delay on buildings that are red- or orange-rated in the Chicago Historic Resources Survey which was completed and published in 1996. The challenge with that is there is no burden of proof the developer needs to make in those 90 days that his or her building must come down. They just wait, and the preservation community – overwhelmed by daily threats to buildings – has 90 days to get a save. We have 90 days to convince the developer to change their mind or sell to a preservation-minded developer (if one can be found) or to convince the City and elected officials that the building meets the criteria for a Chicago Landmark designation.
There is Landmark designation – either for a single building or an entire district. That designation is effective, but there are only so many Landmarks that City staff can process in a single year. And not every building worth saving rises to the level of a Chicago Landmark. There are incentives that come along with Landmarked building, but many of those are unattainable for lower-income homeowners.
Preservation Chicago’s policy advocacy agenda for the coming years includes:
- Demolition fee ordinance. Make demolition cost-prohibitive, with exceptions for people experiencing hardship or for a building that is a life and safety threat.
- Longer demolition delays and for a broader category of buildings. Some great historic buildings were not included in the Chicago Historic Resources Survey or were given a lesser color coding like green. These all should be protected.
- Conservation districts. Landmarks Illinois has been leading an effort to create a conservation district ordinance in Chicago. This would allow greater protections for buildings that define the character of Chicago but may not meet the Chicago Landmark criteria.
- Update the Chicago Historic Resource Survey. It has been nearly 25 years since the last survey was published. It is time to invest in reassessing our built environment.
- Increase Landmark Division staff. So much of the business of protecting important buildings and places rests in this hard-working but severely understaffed department. While the staff work diligently and tirelessly to get done what they can, they need more help to expand capacity to protect our architectural treasures.
- Right zoning. Modify zoning to reduce opportunities to demolish or deconvert buildings and to make it harder to join two lots to demolish an existing structure and build big over both lots.
“I long for the day when developers value history as much as their return on investment,” Miller said, “But until then we need to grow our tools to protect what we know and love about Chicago.”
The Crawford Power Plant in Little Village, a Preservation Chicago Seven Most Endangered in 2014 and 2019, is the latest historic building to fall victim to demolition. When Hilco Global Partners bought the site, they appear to have given little consideration of saving the historic buildings that revolutionized power production across the country.
While Roberto Perez, Executive Vice President of Hilco, claims the buildings were structurally unsound, he never produced documentation to back up his company’s assertions. And the City didn’t ask for it. Now our city and the community that wanted to preserve those buildings have to watch the beautiful structures designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst and White in 1926 slowly destroyed by a wrecking crew. Turbine Hall, which was an architectural gem amongst the Crawford site, is mid-demolition.
Hilco also acquired the historic Fisk Power Station in Pilsen. Although Perez noted that Hilco does not have any plans to demolish the historic buildings on that site, he also said they do not have any plans for the site just yet. Fisk includes buildings by Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge — the successor firm of H.H. Richardson and also the architects of the Chicago Cultural Center and the Art Institute of Chicago, both Chicago Landmarks.
Every developer who wants to erase history and build bigger says the historic buildings they acquired are not viable, and unless it is a Chicago Landmark there are few mechanisms to challenge those claims and protect our historic built environment.
The threat to the Washington Park National Bank is also heartbreaking for people who value their community history and saving historic buildings. The Cook County Land Bank Authority is poised to sell the building to a developer with plans to demolish the nearly 100-year-old, grand limestone commercial building at 63rd and Cottage Grove.
Furthering the threats to historic places are developers who buy historic buildings like the Palmer Mansion in Bronzeville or the Loretto Academy in Woodlawn (both Chicago 7 2019), sitting on them for years or even decades with no progress toward restoring or redeveloping them. This is demolition by neglect and unconscionable, and it should not be allowed to continue.
Preservation Chicago has been facilitating proactive preservation strategies in Bronzeville and Roseland, and they expect to work in at least two more communities in 2019. The work involves doing an inventory of buildings in the neighborhood, identifying vulnerable properties, developing strategies to protect those buildings and advocating for either a Landmark District or a future conservation district.
“We are trying to get ahead of the wrecking ball, but it is challenging when they are so many wrecking balls,” said Ward Miller, Executive Director at Preservation Chicago. “We need a City that makes it really hard to wreck a historic building. We need a City that puts preservation first and foremost and encourages a reinvestment in these fine, quality buildings.
“Investment in our historic buildings and Landmarks IS development — and the most sensitive type of development,” Miller said.